Etiquetteer, of course, is the soul of Perfect Propriety, but it comes at a price: daily battle with That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much, who carries on either like a Rank Parvenu or the most Impatient Curmudgeon. Recently Etiquetteer lost a battle, and That Mr. Dimmick is still paying the price. Etiquetteer is now breaking out of the prison into which That Mr. Dimmick has cast him to tell the story.
“Hell,” as Sartre famously observed in his play No Exit, “is other people.” Perfect Propriety is either the key to the exit or a useful blindfold. It is an essential tool in daily life, because there will always be people who don’t care at all about how they impact others. Always. This is why we have etiquette, to make dealing with Those People easier and less demeaning for ourselves.
It brings us to a bus with two loud children and an angry mother. While That Mr. Dimmick was speaking quietly with a friend near the back of the bus, two little girls and two adult women with them boarded at the next stop. The little girls ran to the back row, immediately behind That Mr. Dimmick, and continued their conversation VERY loudly, with what one would call Outside Voices. Really, it became nearly impossible to hear one’s own conversation. And after a few minutes of this, in a fit of impatience, That Mr. Dimmick burst out with “Young ladies, ENOUGH!” There was no thought about results or consequences, just a complete inability to bear one more moment.
Etiquetteer’s Dear Mother has always said “When you lose your temper, you lose your point.” And alas for That Mr. Dimmick, Dear Mother was once again correct. That Outburst of Temper roused the Maternal Wrath of the mother sitting closest, who immediately challenged any interference. She actually said “This is not a library!” and suggested that we move! She should have been apologizing for the fact that those children were making a public nuisance. (That Mr. Dimmick was so astonished by her that he was unable to respond “It’s not a playground either! Why aren’t you teaching those girls to use their inside voices?! You’re a bad mother if you don’t care!”)
Of course Etiquetteer understood why she reacted that way; no one likes to be called out publicly. Etiquetteer would never have addressed misbehaving children directly. One speaks to the parents or guardians. Etiquetteer would have turned to the mother and asked “Would you please ask the young ladies to use their inside voices? They probably aren’t considering how loud they are inside.” That mother probably would still have suggested Etiquetteer move to another seat, but at least Etiquetteer would be able to sleep nights, secure in the knowledge of having acted with Perfect Propriety. Because That Mr. Dimmick no longer had a leg to stand on. You can’t go about complaining about the behavior of others if your own behavior is cause for concern.
Long story short, the bad behavior of others never excuses one’s own bad behavior. But this story does raise other questions:
Why are we not all of us taught about consideration for others? Why are so many people standing in the doorway of the subway or bus, blocking the people who need to get by them? Why are so many people talking or texting (or eating!) through live performances in theatres, cinemas, and concert halls? Why are so many people blasting music so loudly through their headphones and earbuds that the lyrics are distinctly heard outside? Why are so many people standing two abreast on the escalator, preventing others from moving past them? Why are so many people eager to tell their friends how to spend their money on them with elaborate gift registries, or even bald requests for cash instead?
Why have we stopped caring about the impact that we have on others in daily life, whether friends or strangers?
That’s the question that keeps Etiquetteer awake at night, and there just doesn’t seem to be a Perfectly Proper answer.